A life update

Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.

‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’

And it was. It is.

I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.

I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.

And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.

And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.

I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.

***

This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.

I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.

I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.

It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.

I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.

I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.

***

At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)

What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.

At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.

I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.

I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?

And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?

I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.

To summarise:

The world is not okay.

South Africa is not okay.

I am not okay.

That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.

I’ve been working on a post which has been getting rather stuck in my throat. It’s a necessary piece, for me, but writing about it feels hazardous. I stop, delete, rewrite. I think ‘In the face of others’ much greater trauma, do I even have the right to tell this story?’ I wonder if I’ll offend people. I wonder if my words will be too triggering. I wonder if people will look at me differently. (Update: It’s two weeks later, I’ve written another post, and I’m still stuck with the above piece. At this point I think I might never actually finish writing it.)

So I’m busy writing that post, but I also really miss just sitting down in front of a laptop and feeling words arrive easily. In the meantime thus, here is my attempt at something less intense:

We are all going to die.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot over the past while. I always do, really, but naturally the continuing coronavirus crisis and the strange silence enforced upon my own life have been bringing up this topic more than usually.

A few weeks before the virus became a global reality I read an article titled ‘Deep adaptation’, which I also blogged about here. Basically, it says that climate change has passed the point of no return and that society as we know it can only last another few years before it collapses. Even as I was writing my reaction to that, countries were announcing extreme lockdown measures. I was reading forecasts saying that lockdowns would, on and off, last until a vaccine can be found, which might take two years. This most likely means an end to the world as we know it, at least for a good long while.

How strange; how anti-climactic. I was bracing myself for a climate-induced catastrophe and then out of the blue a virus comes and sweeps the world into a new shape. We hide in our homes as a breathless hush descends over the world, punctuated only by increasingly surreal statistics. The crisis feels urgent yet far away. I feel untouched yet shaken, profoundly isolated yet part of the most global crisis of my lifetime thus far. The truth I had been chewing on before all this happened became suddenly more urgent: Life is completely unpredictable.

The only thing I know for sure is that we are all going to die.

We tend to react to a sentence like the above by saying “wow, that’s dark”. When I say that I think about death a lot, people think I’m morbid. They even try to cheer me up.

But stop, stop that for a moment. Let’s stop the reflexive flinching we do when the topic of death comes up. What if we stared down the chasm of our own finiteness, what if we explored this one and only certainty? What would happen if we really believed the idea that we are mortal?

What happens for me is a blend of grief and relief that eventually, when I lean into it, crescendos into ecstatic nihilism. This is IT. This. THIS. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah.

My twenties were basically an extended time of existential crisis for me. When I started seriously doubting my faith at 21 I asked myself, over and over, “what’s the point of life if there is no God and no hereafter?” I watched a video by Stephen Fry around that time, wherein he waxed lyrical about our mortality and about the strange defiant beauty of our tiny lives in comparison to the chasm of eternity. To me he sounded like a man grasping at straws while dismantling the very fabric of his own life. Sure, I thought, there might be beauty in doing good without having a god forcing you to do so, but it’s a sad second place to actually, you know, having a MEANINGFUL life. (I wasn’t sure what I meant by meaningful, but I knew that I was missing it.) The departure of religion had left a large hole in my life, and saying that our insignificance can be beautiful was not going to fill it.

It took almost ten years. Ten years to dismantle the ideas that society and religion had planted so deep into my soul that I thought they were fundamental to who I was: ‘Life should be Meaningful, and Meaning is inextricably linked to making a mark. Leaving a legacy. Making a difference. Changing the world. Being remembered. Living forever’.

It took me ten years to dismantle the idea of ‘meaningful’, perhaps because this concept is as vague as it is deeply ingrained. What we usually mean when we speak of meaning is that we want our lives to feel like they matter. Naturally then the question arises: matter to whom? And the answer, if we’re honest, is ‘matter to as many people as possible’.

On one level, I think that most of us want our lives to matter to others because we are so deeply relational. We deduce that we exist from others’ reactions to us. We deduce that we are significant based on how important others think we are. This is part of what makes us human.

On another level, I think there is a yearning in most of us to form part of a cosmic story. We’re storytelling creatures. We want quests, adventure, romance – we want momentum and progress in our narrative. We want to form part of a story playing itself out on the stage of eternity and unfolding into intricate patterns, in which our footsteps, tiny as they are, form an integral part.  

I think it’s fine to want to have meaning in our lives. It’s fine to want to matter to others, and it’s fine to want to form part of an epic adventure. And in many ways I DO think we form part of a continuous unfolding tale, of a cosmic love story in which every creature matters tremendously and uniquely. Every cell, every particle, throbs with existence and with impending death, with the unending flow of endings and beginnings comprising the tragedy and the glory of this universe. We matter. This matters. Excruciatingly so.

And also: we are all going to die. And in many ways, it’ll be as if we’d never lived.

This morning my dog Waldo and I went for our daily walk through the neighbour’s vineyards. A thick fog was covering the landscape, so that the earth fell away into grey nothingness at the end of every row of vines. I was the only human on earth. I opened my arms wide and walked with hands flung into the sky, laughing, crying a little bit. “I am going to die soon”, I whispered into the air. No need to get too serious. No need to do Great Things. No fixed Destiny to chase down, no Person I might disappoint, no life-or-death decisions to make – death is the only given.

This realisation has been settling into my bones over the past year or two, but it’s really over the last few months that the relief of it has become palpable for me. I hear people talk about changing the world and I think ‘wow, I don’t want that anymore! Not in the way they mean it, anyway’. I witness people being really anxious about the state of the Earth, about themselves, about humanity, and I get it but I think, quietly: ‘don’t take it so seriously!’ I’m not being flippant – we are surrounded by suffering, we are separated from nature in untenable ways, we are destroying our habitat, we are the walking wounded blindly wounding others. These are big problems. But we can do much more about these things if we start from a profound admission of our own mortality.

Everything is really really precious because we are going to die soon.

And nothing will last forever. Not even the damage we are doing to the Earth. Not even greed, and capitalism, and inequality; not even radioactive waste.

Being profoundly aware of our own impending death means not taking anything too seriously, yet ascribing great significance to everything. Holding this paradox in our hearts: My life is fleeting. My life matters. Without any grand gestures, without monuments being put up in my honour, my life matters because it matters to me – and because nothing will ever be like ME again, not in a billion billion years. I get to fill my life with exactly what I want to fill it with. I get to people it with misty morning walks and Terry Pratchett novels and late nights watching sitcoms and many, many tears (because everything makes me cry now that I realise I’m going to die soon).

I like it here. I like existing, even when I’m not enjoying it. I like this realisation settling into my heart: If there is no Grand Plan handed to me by an all-knowing God, then there is just the daily adventure of figuring out how I want to fill my life. The ending of this book is certain: death. But the pleasure is in the reading, in the plot twists and grand romances and big reveals along the way.

P.S. I do actually think that there probably is some sort of Consciousness from whence I came, or whom I am embodying, or a kind of Cosmic Plan or something. I just don’t think that it matters very much for how I live my life right now. Whether or not there is a grand destiny at play, in this embodiment I can only hazard guesses about the greater scheme of things. And, if you ask me, with no knowledge comes no responsibility.

No holy duty, only play. No god-given task, only breath-given awe.

There’s a giant elephant in the room, and I need to address it because it’s threatening to squeeze the life out of me if I don’t. So instead of posting about all the interesting things that I love talking about (psilocybin! Mental health! Luuurrrv. God. How to Be A Good Human – all of these coming soon), I’m writing about The End of Times.

Yes. I’m going there.

We live in a time of rapid and unpredictable change. When I first considered writing this post, COVID-19 was a faint rumour. Now I’m sitting at home in voluntary isolation, wondering whether I should have bought more yoghurt before throwing away my car keys. 2020 started with the threat of nuclear war, then wildfires took over the headlines, then Corona reared its head. And above this all looms the giant of climate disaster. Life as we know might just be ending.

Like everybody else’s, my social media feed, my social interactions, and my work environment are littered with references to climate change. Greta Thunberg is a household name and I am uncomfortably conscious of over-fishing, desertification, wildfires and droughts. But like most people I have skirted over the discomfort these thoughts awaken with a variety of pacifying thoughts: ‘we can still turn this around’, ‘if an apocalypse is about to happen we’d see it coming and have time to prepare’, and ‘it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, or at least not until I’m old’.

Then something in my heart started changing. I barely know how to describe this other than by calling it an intuition, a gut feeling which began its unwinding first in my personal life. At the end of last year I decided to quit my job in two years from now, giving me just about enough time to right my financial wrongs and pay off my car. This might not sound momentous, but to me it was, because I’d always imagined myself going into academia. I was going to do my Ph.D., I had my topic all planned out, I was going to be a pioneer in the field of multilingual literacy. And so I couldn’t understand why my ambition was failing me, why I wasn’t writing more research papers and attending conferences, grabbing all the opportunities afforded to me by my somewhat interesting and stable job in academia. Why was I dragging my feet on this?

Then it hit me: I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m a good fit for academia – I’m an enthusiastic teacher, I love doing research, I am interested in meaty topics – but I don’t actually WANT this. It doesn’t feel connected. It doesn’t feel urgent. It doesn’t feel alive to me anymore.

So I started reimagining my possible future, and planning for the quiet more communal life I hope soon to lead. Because suddenly I was imaging living on a farm, practicing permaculture and other sustainable ways of living, I started reading more and connecting more with like-minded people. Whilst this was happening, the flood of climate-change related information was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Then a friend sent me an article titled “Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy” and the unformed thoughts in my mind merged into clarity: this could really be it. The urgency within and around me says that we are living in the last few years of relative normalcy before society as we know it collapses.

I’m no climate scientist, but I watch one video about the consequences of over-fishing or read up on the stats regarding temperature increase or Arctic melt and I am left with a weird sense of cognitive dissonance: this information tells me the world is ending. Why are we carrying on as normal? Why are politicians squabbling over policies and laws that will make little to no difference, when it seems we have long since passed the point of no return?

If things are ending, why does everything seem so normal?

“Deep adaptation” crystallised that vague sense of despair for me. Bendell writes that the effect of climate change is becoming visible in non-linear ways, in other words that change is no longer predictable and happening incrementally, but that the changes instead suggest “runaway climate change.” Elsewhere in the article, abandoning subtlety, he says: “Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.”

I don’t have the subject expertise to analyse whether the claims he makes are in fact accurate. Many experts criticise Bendell’s conclusions – here is one well-balanced example; but I personally am sufficiently convinced by the research Professor Jem Bendell cites, by his conclusions which resonate with what I am seeing, and by his forecast of the future: he suggests that we are facing a near-term societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possibly even human extinction. We cannot know what this will look like, although we can guess; we cannot know whether we will live to tell the tale, but it is almost certain that the way we have been living is about to change drastically. And any efforts we are currently making to mitigate this crisis are largely in vain. Which means that instead of trying to conserve our current ecosystems, trying to gradually change policies, switching to greener light bulbs and recycling more (none of which are bad things per se), we should be planning for a future where we might not know where our next meal will come from.

Is this simply fear-mongering? Well, at the very least Bendell believes himself. As do many others, who are now forming online communities under the Deep Adaptation banner. Perhaps the future is not as gloomy as Bendell imagines it, but to me, speculating about whether an impending collapse is a certainty or only a likelihood feels counter-productive. I find that Bendell’s suggestion resonates deeply (and uncomfortably) with me. It feels true. And if it isn’t – well, then, it still brings my priorities into stark relief.

Naturally many questions arise: If the world is about to collapse, how can I prepare? Should I even try? Should I sell my possessions and go live in a hippie commune? (Not an entirely unattractive idea.) Should I start stockpiling guns and pain medication? Bendell himself suggests that we approach the changes with a focus on resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation. These are interesting concepts and I’d like to write about them in further posts. For now, I’ll say only that I think hope, rather than defeatism, could and should still flourish.

What this article, and the headlines about COVID-19, and about the fires and the floods and the droughts, awaken in me first is the urge to pause. “I might die soon”, I whisper to myself. I don’t think that thinking about death is a bad thing, and I have been doing a lot of that for all my life. But this is the closest I have ever come to a cancer diagnosis or a near-death car crash. My future is laden with uncertainty. I might soon lose my family and my possessions. Endings and frightening beginnings are breathing down my neck in a new and almost tangible way. What strange and beautiful grief.

“Here at the end of all things”, as Frodo said to Sam – what remains that really matters?

This does. This moment, in which my dog is barking outside at the neighbours’ arrival, the autumn night fragrant and heavy and very dark. I’m itchy from half a dozen mosquito bites. I ate too much and my stomach sits uncomfortably below my ribcage. I can hear crickets, and my fridge humming, and now that my dog has stopped barking, little else. My cup of tea is lukewarm and delicious. There is so much air suddenly, now that I am aware of it, that I breathe it in in large gulps, savouring its coolness and imagining how my body hums with oxygen, transporting life into every cell. I am so profoundly alive.

If the world as I know it is about to end, then this is what I want to do with the time I still have left: I want to hear really beautiful music. I want to have really good sex. I want to laugh really hard. I want to hug my mom more often than I do. I want to be kind. I want to relinquish any sense of entitlement, let go of jealousy and competition and envy, embracing instead my life and the people it has been graced with with wonder. Every lover: how beautiful their skin, their cheekbones, their laughter. Every friend: how nourishing their presence, how dear to me their mannerisms. How dear to me my own body, and the stinky furry body of my dog, and the twining tendril of the bower vine inching its way gradually up my porch.

Perhaps all it takes to be in the moment is to realise you might not get another.